MEDIA ROUNDUP: Mental health: Media's grasp of mental health is slow to develop

With a social stigma, few specialized reporters, and a lot of September 11 coverage, mental illness can be a tricky story to pitch. David Ward finds that the best approach is a human touch.

With a social stigma, few specialized reporters, and a lot of September 11 coverage, mental illness can be a tricky story to pitch. David Ward finds that the best approach is a human touch.

America is a country steeped in the tradition of stoic self-reliance, and because of that, many people are reluctant to admit problems and seek help. This is especially true with issues involving mental health, which are not visibly apparent. But thanks in part to increased media coverage of everything from depression and ADD to the use of psychotropic drugs as therapy, much of the stigma associated with mental illness is gradually being erased. However, mental health remains an issue that few media outlets cover head-on. Instead, it ends up being reported as a subset of other stories, such as mentally coping with a layoff, or helping children adjust to divorcing parents. The biggest example of this has been the coverage of the counseling many people received following last year's terrorist attacks. "In the last six months, every news outlet in the country has done either a cover story or a significant feature on mental health as a result of 9/11 and people looking at the impact of that," says Jennifer Devlin, media relations vice president with Washington-based PR firm Susan Davis International. Bob Carolla, communications director for the National Association for the Mentally Ill, adds, "Generally, the news media has improved reporting on mental illness. And even movies and television have improved in their attitudes toward mental illness, as witnessed by [Academy Award winner] A Beautiful Mind." Dual effect of increased coverage Devlin argues the increased coverage of mental-health issues has been a double-edged sword. On one hand, it has helped reduce some of the stigma associated with mental illness, and made it easier for people to ask for help. But Devlin says, "I think the media played a large role in keeping the stigma strong by covering Andrea Yates and other headline-grabbing trials and violent crimes committed by people with mental illnesses." One example of how easy it is for the media to revert to previous perceptions was the Trentonian, a New Jersey-based paper that came under criticism for headlining a recent story about a fire at a psychiatric hospital, "Roasted Nuts." Al Guida, former executive director with the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign (NMHAC) and currently a Washington-based consultant on mental-health issues, suggests the media may just be following a trend driven largely by other forces. "A much more powerful vehicle for reducing the stigma over the past 10 years has been the pharmaceutical industry direct-to-consumer advertising," he notes. "The major pharmaceuticals have spent hundreds of millions of dollars combined on direct-to-consumer advertising for clinical depression alone." But Guida adds that depression is only one mental illness, and that others - including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders - remain stigmatized to a certain extent by the public and press. Breaking through with reporters One of the problems faced by PR pros pitching mental illness stories is that few outlets outside the Washington, DC-based public-policy arena have a dedicated mental-health reporter. Beyond specialty publications such as Psychology Today, most reporting is done by general-health reporters who tend to be far more comfortable dealing with issues of the body rather than the mind. "General-health reporters look at the human body from the eyebrows down - they don't see diseases of the brain as part of their jurisdiction," says Mark Grossman, CEO of Holtsville, NY-based Grossman Strategies. "Even though mental health has, in many ways, lost the stigma it once had, for many reporters it's still off limits." As a result, even major health trends such as the shift over the past few decades away from couch-based "talk therapy" and toward pharmaceutical intervention with Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil, often gets more coverage as a managed-care or health-insurance story as opposed to personal-health story. The other potential danger is the risk of generalizing about mental-health issues when in fact each human brain is different. "The balance that needs to be found is how to cover this issue in a one-size-fits-all way while at the same time realizing that mental health is an individualized thing," Devlin says. PR professionals also caution that in trying to explain what are incredibly complex scientific subjects to a lay audience, reporters sometimes end up inadvertently encouraging a lot of amateur diagnosis and treatment. Reace Alvarenga, media relations specialist with the Children's Medical Center of Dallas, says the majority of media requests she fields are for mental-health-related issues. "I have two psychologists who are consistently called by local and national media to comment on the state of mind of children, their reactions to violent events, how parents should talk to their kids about controversial topics, handling life changes, etc.," she says. "The main message that we try to have our doctors impart to reporters is to have your child evaluated by a mental-health professional." Among the leading reporters covering mental health as either a public-policy story or health story are Robert Pear and Erica Goode of The New York Times, Abby Trafford of The Washington Post, Bill Lichtenstein, who hosts National Public Radio's Infinite Minds, Jamie Talan of Newsday, and USA Today's Marilyn Elias. Humanizing the issue Most PR professionals advocate the use of traditional tools such as press conferences, releases, surveys, studies, and making mental-health experts available for interviews. Devlin notes that having a high-profile individual such as Tipper Gore, head of the NMHAC, led to significant coverage from the major political reporters in Washington, such as CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Paula Zahn. Grossman adds that it also helps to get those recovering from mental illness - and not necessarily just celebrities - to join in. He points out that a patient, along with a mental-health professional, can help "humanize" the story. "People always think of people with serious mental illness as 'nuts' and they're not," he says. "Getting them on the air is one way of showing that most are not any different from you or me." ----------- Where to go Newspapers The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, Newsday Magazines Psychology Today, Science, Nature, Popular Science, Time, Newsweek, US News & World Report, Seventeen, McCall's, Family Circle, Parenting, BusinessWeek Trade Publications Psychiatric Times, Journal of Psychiatry, International Journal of Mental Health, Community Mental Health Journal, Mental Health Weekly TV & Radio Psychology Today (syndicated radio program), Infinite Minds (NPR), The Today show, Good Morning America, CNN, Fox News Network, PBS, Discovery Channel, Lifetime, Oxygen, C-Span (for public policy/legislative issues) Internet Psychologytoday.com, NIMH.org, NIMA.org

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